The latest edits of The Faith. I hope to all done by the end of the summer!
"Bloody French are back to murdering each other," I said. Noting a lull in our conversation, I had picked up a copy of Le Moniteur left by a previous passenger on the train. Although it was two days old, the following headline caught my eye: "Angry Student Murders — Be Warned!"
Logan, gazing at the onrushing plains out the smudged glass of the train, looked up. Leaning forward he spoke, "What?" When I didn't answer, he said "Nathaniel."
"Just this," I replied at last. I pointed towards the article, and he motioned for the paper.
"Well," he said after glancing at the headline, "You mustn't believe everything in Le Moniteur. Louis Philippe's got his hands all over it." My friend was right of course. The French king had indeed seized control of the paper, and the publication was slandered for its blatant propaganda.
"Read it," I said. He nodded, flipped the paper open to see the entire article, and coughed to clear his throat.
"'Angry Student Murders — Be Warned! Early yesterday morning, the state police received several complaints about a gathering of boisterous students along the Rue des Écoles. The reports warned of shouting, angry cries, and chanting. The mob had taken up residence in the middle of the street, blocking all traffic. Upon seeing the gendarmes, the mob screamed even louder. They hurled slanderous comments about the king, his family, and the entire French government. Next, the devils threw stones. No gendarmes were injured in these attacks.
"'Given the students' predisposition to violence, disruptive nature, and dangerous tone, the gendarmes dispersed the mob by force. These lay-abouts and laborers did not comply, but the police compelled most of them in the end. However, one cluster refused to leave. One gendarme dismounted and began shoving them out of the road. Enraged, one of these student lashed out. He knifed the policeman in the chest and took to his heels. Hearing the strangled cry of the mortally injured man, other gendarmes gave pursuit and took the murderer into custody, tackling him to the flagstones.
'"The criminal is being held at an undisclosed location and will stand trial this coming Tuesday. Given the overwhelming amount of evidence, he will, of course, be found guilty and executed for his crime. The writers of this paper warn all subscribers to be wary of such dangerous elements within the city. Furthermore, to all protestors: justice is swift upon those who defy the peace of France.'" He paused as the tracks shuddered beneath us. "And that's it," Logan finished solemnly.
"Cheery bit of news, isn't it?" I commented dryly.
"Things are coming to a head." For months, news from the Continent had been spooling through the English papers. Workers and students were out of work, out of bread, and out of patience. Hunger was rampant, and the excesses from before the French Revolution were returning. In the German states, in Austria, and throughout France, anger was brewing. "And our Tour?" he continued.
I nodded. "I don't suppose it's dangerous enough to warrant a change in plans . . ."
"Oh of course it isn't. What would our fathers think?" Logan interrupted. Grand Tours aren't simply changed. "Their king will sort it all out. He's got Louis XVI, XIII, and Charles before him to act as guides," my friend spoke darkly. It was very true. Given that the recent French kings had been executed, forced to abdicate, and exiled did not bode well for any man who refused to listen to the Parisian mob. "We'll continue as we are, and hope that our time in Paris won't be interrupted by another Tennis Court Oath."
I laughed in agreement but changed the subject. My mind kept slipping back though. The article had unsettled me, perhaps more than it had Logan. But I couldn't say what exactly bothered me. Maybe it was a sense of caution. Logan was a Viscount and I, his companion. We were just starting upon a Grand Tour, a rite of passage reserved for the affluent. In the end I resolved not to worry too much. How much enjoyment would that bring me?
The train rolled on and on under our feet. I glanced out the window and was again caught by the rolling beauty of my home, England. Her flowing fields and proud trees were a constant reminder of the majesty of our people. It struck me suddenly that it might be years before I saw her beloved shores once more. A small, nagging voice in my head reminded me that the world was full of beautiful places. Eventually I let myself drift off to sleep.
As the day's sun dipped towards the horizon, the rolling, rocking motion of the locomotive came to a halt with a final burst of steam. The nearby sound of gulls filled the silence left by the engine's rest.
I smiled over at Logan and gave a chipper "Shall we?" before standing and ushering myself out of Compartment 12A and onto the bustling Dover platform. He followed and we collected our trunks and took stock of our situation as we stood in the crowd, isles amid a sea of movement. In the distance, we could hear the chaotic sounds from the wharf.
Porters carried our luggage, two trunks apiece, as we jaunted down the busy street and finally came to a queue waiting for passage to Calais. Stowing our possessions and inspecting the fine accommodations of a first-class birth, the pair of us tipped our porters and settled in for the short trip to our first foreign land.
After perhaps a quarter of an hour of lounging about, Logan leaned up from his chair and slapped his knees. "What else is there to do aboard a ship?" he questioned.
Yawning, I replied, "The journey's only a few hours to begin with." Luckily for my vivacious companion, we had arrived only minutes before the vessel was slated to depart. We had just enough time to hop aboard and take our leave of the porters before she set sail. "There's always the sea," I said offhandedly. The words had scarcely escaped my mouth before Logan had leapt up and was donning his frock coat and rushing towards the door. My laugh rang out through the empty room as I raced to collect my own wardrobe and catch up with the man.
Finally, I found him along the portside rail of our vessel. While I had seen the expansive ocean before, this particular view was gorgeous.
The pallid face of Dover's cliff hung behind us. Majestically, they pushed us forward, and resolutely, they reminded us from whence we came. Ahead, wave after rolling wave painted the movable mass of the sea. Droplets coated the air, and passengers sat about, reading their papers and puffing their cigars.. Beneath us, I could feel all the power of those waves. Then, my eye was drawn upwards. Above, the sky stretched like some divine canvas. Quiet clouds drifted in the celestial sea, while the setting sun smiled warmly upon us as her rosy fingers grasped the sky.
In a word, it was breathtaking.
The two of us stood transfixed as we gazed upon all these wonders. I let a roaring, boy-like cheer escape my throat. The joyful sound echoed across the waves and drew not a few looks from our fellow passengers, but I didn't care.
"You do know how to make a scene, don't you Nathaniel?" laughed Logan, clasping me on the shoulder.
"I do try, anyway. How else would I steal any attention from your Eminence?" I bowed playfully and jumped back as his kick cut through the air. We dashed about the deck, laughing and pointing towards every new sight that caught our ecstatic eyes. As darkness swallowed all aboard, we returned to our cabin for a night of fulfilled rest. Although the ship would reach France long before the morning, the vessel offered the courtesy of remaining aboard overnight to all privileged passengers. Given our day's travels, we were all too keen to accept this offer of hospitality.
Opening my eyes the next morning, I immediately noted the decrease in movement. The gentle waves of the harbor lacked the luster and the strength of their counterparts amid the open sea. It was no matter, though. I woke Logan, who complained endlessly in good fun about the noisy cabin-mate. We again retrieved our gear, left the ship, and once more, boarded another train. It seemed that this voyage would involve a lot of monotonous travel. Although the scenery was fantastic, the rolling and often uncomfortable seats of a locomotive are not the best of accommodations.
Walking towards it, Logan glanced over. "Behave yourself; wouldn't want you to get shot by some gendarme."
I threw him a mock salute. "Welcome to France."
We stopped talking then and ran to catch the train. Laughing together, we stepped aboard as it threw out a burst of steam and began winding its way towards Paris.
Logan, who had always taken a strange obsession to France, England's most historic, stalwart enemy, lectured on and on about the sites we were passing and the figures who had once resided there. It was all quite fun, and I learned a lot. Not one collapsed monastery or Roman arch would pass by without an anecdote from my friend. I had asked him about his obsession many times, but the constant answer I received was "As a people, they are simply so resolute that I cannot help but be inspired."
For myself, I found my own curiosity and studies being drawn further south, towards Rome — the world's seat of power for millennia. Although I loathed their burdensome Latin, I was more than looking forward to traipsing among the catacombs and basilicas of that ancient city.
I'd been to London on several occasions, and the rushing citizens of our own capital were familiar to me. But as we watched the train roll into Paris, I realized that this new city was something else entirely. "Hectic" wasn't the right word for it, for the people there were not rushing to and fro. Instead, the people ambled together, arm in arm, laughing playfully in the French sun. But they conducted business too. I saw several men, lawyers by their attire, arguing over some point. But as we descended once more from the locomotive, I could simply sense something different about Paris: it was a city of life!
And of course, Logan and I took to the city manically.
After procuring fashionable lodgings and taking the time to stroll through the winding avenues of Paris, we established ourselves within the city. The majestic part of a Grand Tour is that schedules and timetables are superfluous. Logan and I were to be abroad for at least a year, perhaps longer. There was no school-master to regulate our learning, and no commitments to rush onwards to achieve. We simply lived. "C'est la vie" as it were. In that city of extensive wonders, time was incredibly easy to forget. We spent days practicing the language among the friendly, raucous venders along the Seine. Hours were lost upon simple pleasures, and untold minutes were devoted to navigating the den of byways that composed the fantastical labyrinth that was Paris.
And the sites! The Louvre, Notre Dame, the king's new Versailles . . . On and on could I list these. The majesty and overwhelming power of such a land continues to stagger my mind. The Louvre alone possessed nearly a thousand works of art! We stared for hours at the works of Renaissance masters, and the intricate stone carvings of sculptors long dead. Perhaps I am rambling, but the beauty must be highlighted.
"There's another one!" I called, noting a gargoyle staring down at us.
"Of course. They're all over the city. Did you know that Louis X decided—" He stopped talking then, and I looked over. Logan was staring as a man shuffled up to us.
The newcomer had a grimy patch over his eye, a decided limp, and stunk like putrid flesh. I hoped he would just walk by, but he angled right towards us.
"Please kind sirs, do you—"
"No we don't," said Logan cutting him off. "We don't have any extra money, our apologies."
"But my children are starving. Just a few coins would help. With the price of bread so high, we can barely eat."
I tried to talk, but couldn't come up with anything.
Logan pressed on. "No. I'm sorry. Good day." My friend steered us away from the beggar. As we rounded a corner in the street, he turned to me. "Probably would've spent it on wine anyway."
I didn't argue. We lost ourselves again in the winding boulevards.
Upon the grounds of Versailles, opulence took an entirely new meaning. Under the wings of the Viscounts of Harling, I thought I had experienced richness. Banquets had been frequent, physical labor non-existent, and a festive air was often upon us. We had lived like royals at the Shaded Oaks.
Now the Harlings' wealth seemed laughable.
Only recently opened by the king, Versailles had once been a restricted playhouse of royal splendor. For centuries, the kings and queens of France had basked amid their glory. The chateau itself is impossible to fully describe to one who has never seen it. Room after glorious room, each more adorned than the last, filled the entire building. Paintings, gilded chairs, plush carpets and massive four-poster beds, vases and wonders from the East — we saw all of these in every chamber. As a private residence, it was beyond comparison.
At one point though, after seeing another of the countless rooms, Logan simply stopped, transfixed by a painting. The piece showed a quiet country scene. In one corner, peasants labored over their farm, digging rows for planting in the dirt. Elsewhere, a beautiful girl, her poor clothes hanging off her gorgeous frame, was singing. Maybe she was calling to the laborers; I'm not sure. But, her voice had attracted the attention of a noble hunting party which passed by. These men, all in flashy colors and silken shoes, paused to hear the maiden sing. Their faces though, were not appreciative. They were lusting. They lusted for the beautiful peasant. And it didn't take an artist or scholar to know what would happen next.
"My god," whispered Logan. Before I could ask, he moved, rushing into the next room. There, he suddenly stopped and turned back. Now we stood in the hall of mirrors, and the look of pain that crossed his face was reflected again and again along the walls of the expansive hallway.
I blinked at him; the look troubled me. When it didn't disappear, and he didn't say anything, I grabbed his arm and drew the man aside. "What is it?" I said. "You look like you're Louis XVI and the mob has come for you."
He continued to stare at me, ignoring my joke completely. As I watched, the sadness I glimpsed was starting to turn towards shame. He stared out the window at something.
I looked, seeing nothing. "What?" I pressed.
At first, he only pointed. I followed his finger. There, out along the shaded paths, a grounds' crew was busy snipping away at the trees and lawn, ensuring that everything looked perfect. They sweated in the heat, and their clothes were shabby and worn — simple working folk by their looks. I looked at Logan again. "What is the matter with you?"
Finally, he spoke. "We're touring the palace of a king, and those poor devils are slaving to ensure it looks nice. Even after their Revolution, the French are still divided. There's still classes, Nathaniel! This . . . this is the extension of privilege." He waved his arm around, indicating intricate pottery, gilded tables, and the sheer wealth of the room.
"And what of it?" I said. Then it caught me, and I slapped him on the back. "Oh, come now! You're not feeling guilty, are you?" His blank eyes gave the answer, and it terrified me. In all our years of friendship, Logan had never once offered any apology for his better birth. "Logan, you and your family are nothing like these kings. You've . . . you've adopted a peasant family for heaven's sake. My family! Your kindness for the Fletchers—"
"What of it?"
"Doesn't that make you an exception to the rule?"
"To you and your family maybe," he said. "But what about the beggars? Those workers? And what about that student in Le Moniteur's article who murdered a gendarme?"
That trail of logic caught me off guard. "What about some murderer, some bloody criminal?"
"Don't you get it?"
"Enlighten me," I said drolly.
"That student murdered because the government tried yet again to throw him back into the poverty of his birth. That student isn't the criminal; the gendarmes are."
I held up a finger, quieting him. "Are you out of your mind? Since when, have you ever thought like this? It's an established tradition, a thousand years in the making, and a good one. People like your family are bred to rule for everyone's benefit. No more of this class nonsense. Your grandfather fought France to stop such bilge, for heaven's sake."
He didn't look at me. "There's never been a need to think like this. It makes me sick. And Nathaniel, aside from a fluke, that tradition you're lauding makes you worthless."
Despite the public setting, I grabbed his lapels. "What does that mean?"
Logan stared into my eyes then. "You're a noble too. If not in blood, in practice. You're the reason they slave for the 'better' classes. You're a part of the system too."
I blinked, the world reeling now. "That's . . . that's not true." Even I didn't believe it.
"You're not a noble," he said, not unkindly. "Why aren't you working in the fields now? Why, Nathaniel?"
"I . . . "
The impressive luster of the gilded room died.
I couldn't breathe in the stuffy palace, so we went outside. But our sudden quiet reserve was not helped there either. For miles, we saw the manicured gardens and meticulously trimmed groves of trees dominated the landscape. Pools and fountains dotted these fields, and brass nymphs and sculpted gods sprayed jets of water from their open mouths into the overflowing fountains. Yet more palaces, still a part of the Versailles' grounds, waited across those fields. We didn't bother entering them. There was too much to see.
But at every point, poor, exhausted and broken workers cleaned the grounds, slaving over the aristocracy's palaces. I tried not to think of their families back home. My family had been adopted by the Harlings centuries ago for some good deed my ancestor performed for Logan's. By some happenstance, we prospered.
After Logan's comments, I found that I couldn't meet the eye of the workers, the poor laborers who should have been me. What's more, as we made our way back out of the grounds and towards our distant lodgings in the city, I began to notice other, less majestic aspects of the Paris I had come to love. Bodies lined the streets. They weren't dead of course, but I couldn't tell from their appearance. I had seen corpses which looked more life-like. These beggars, whose existence I hadn't even allowed myself to acknowledge before, now stared accusingly, their gazes impossible to escape. They begged every passerby for a crust and received nothing but curses.
"Did you notice them before?"
I looked up. "No. And you?"
He shook his head without looking at me. "That beggar who asked us for money . . . He was telling the truth. He had kids. They were starving. And we did nothing." He paused, then laughed bitterly. "We did worse than nothing. We lied to ourselves to ignore his existence." He stared out the carriage's window. His eyes fixed on a pale, old woman, who sat in the dirt and swatted at the flies swirling around her ripped clothing. I looked down and felt sick, but our carriage kept rolling.
Silence dripped as we entered a small cafe for dinner that night. Guilt, anger, helplessness — all could attempt to explain how we felt.
After yet another minute of silence wound down, I grew tired of poking around at my perfectly grilled and impeccably presented swordfish. I glanced over at Logan. "What do we do now?"
Logan set down his fork and paused. Finally, he said "What is there to do? Abandon the Tour and donate the funds?"
I shook my head, laughing. "Not the best option. Your family won't accept that. We'd be shamed out of our homes if we returned now. Plus, how would that change anything?"
"It wouldn't, and that's the problem. It's not a small issue. Its massive, and its historic too. But that murderous student felt strongly enough to act. Shouldn't we?"
"And go knife someone, the first gendarme we find?" I asked incredulously.
"Well," he laughed, "that'd fix the problem about going home now. I hear French prisons can be rather comfortable."
We chuckled darkly and poked some more at our fish. After a minute, Logan spoke once more. "The damndest part is that we'repart of the problem." I shot him a look, but he didn't stop. "You're included because you're practically a noble and—"
"I'm no noble," I defended, interrupting him. But even I didn't believe my argument.
And he didn't even bother responding to it. "People in Europe are rising up once more. The French started it years ago, but rich bastards like us put them down. Was it worth it, throwing about England's balance-of-power routine?"
I looked at him, hard. Logan, regardless of his faults, was one of the most patriotic men I knew. "It's not the same in England as in France," I countered.
"Sure it is! I eat lavish meals every day, and even if I wouldn't admit it, I know that in the countryside, some Englishmen are starving. It's just always been a fact of life. I never bothered to care. It's in the system. The wealthy get richer, and the poor suffer."
"And how does anyone, especially two men like us, change that?" I wasn't angry with his line of thought. I was feeling guilty by now as well. I just doubted that anything widespread could be done.
"Change the government!" He slapped the table with his palm.
"Oh for heaven's sake. Now you sound like a revolutionary. That French air, I tell you."
"Don't make jokes Nathaniel. I'm serious about all this. For my whole blasted life, I lived in the Shaded Oaks and watched others cater to my whims. Now, I'm in France, and I see a system that needs changes even more than ours does. They tried at least. We shot them to pieces and burned their lands, but Napoleon and the rest of them tried. What can you and I say?"
"Suppose we try something then. What will our efforts fix? Two people. How big of a difference will that make?"
He looked up and fixed his eyes on mine. A bead of sweat dripped down his forehead, and a vein in his neck pulsated with movement. "Tell that to Robespierre. And all the other men who brought down the king fifty years ago." His eyes flicked away. "How could I be so selfish? How did I miss it!" he said to himself.
"First, what about Robespierre's corruption? How many men were killed because of him? Some Incorruptible . . ."
"That's not the issue. He was a single man, and he made a change. That's all that matters."
"That and Waterloo. But I see your point. And now, in the immediate future, what are we supposed to do?"
"Change something," he said.
"Ah, pure, definite planning . . . 'change something.'"
"You think of something concrete then," he hissed, swigging a large gulp from his glass of wine.
By this point, our conversation had grown heated, and others were beginning to pay attention. Suddenly, a tall man approached us through the crowd, and by his dress and obvious swagger, it was plain that he was an aristocrat.
Nonchalantly, he sat down at an empty chair waiting by our table. He folded his hands and set a bowler hat next to my wine. It drew my attention for a moment, because a interesting diamond-shaped medallion was attached to the hat. Inset into the medal was a Christian cross, bisecting the diamond's angles. The strange headpiece piqued my curiosity, but then I remembered that some random stranger had just sat at our table; my eyes flicked toward him.
His English was accented, but I didn't believe he came originally from France. I couldn't place the accent though. "Pardon my rudeness, gentlemen, but your tone was loud, and I overheard. You want change, is it?"
Logan spoke before I could. "And who are you?" The clipped query was not polite. My friend was not in the best of moods.
"Names aren't important, friend. I asked a question." The abrasive voice pooled out of his mouth like some foul drink, and I loathed this interloper immediately. Our appetites gone, I made to stand. The man clamped a hand upon my wrist, buckling it, and I collapsed back into my seat. My eyes flashed upwards, and Logan's arms began to quiver, his face livid.
"I ask," the bulky man continued, "Because you gentlemen aren't supposed to be the complaining type. You're the leading type. You lead. It's in your blood, and it's your duty." He paused, studying our young faces and attires. "On Tour are we?" he finally offered.
I snapped my hand back from him grasp. "Why don't you leave, friend," I spit, using his greeting mockingly.
His dark eyes flashed upwards, and he grinned. It was not a pleasant expression. "I don't like all this . . . talk recently. Students murdering in the streets and nobles feigning some sort of guilt complex. People like that tend to . . ." His voice trailed off as he spread his hands.
"I don't believe it," I addressed Logan.
"Are you threatening us, sir?" he said in turn.
"Threatening would be telling you we'll kill you if you don't stop your insipid talk of change, the noble's responsibility to give back to the poor, and all that shit. No, I do not threaten." His lips split, the predatory leer reappearing. "Besides, what would you do, anyway?"
Logan punched him.
The man, big though he was, crumpled out of the chair, and blood flowed freely down his broken nose and through his wispy mustache and long pointed goatee. Shocked, I gave a cry of short, clipped laughter. It was a nice hit all things considered.
Around the restaurant, several distinct things had happened. Three other men, similar in build and dress to our unwanted dinner companion, and all wearing that strange medallion-studded bowler hat, had stood. Their hands were suspiciously thrust into their waistcoats. Furthermore, not a sound carried throughout the room. All eyes were on us.
Finally, the collapsed villain regained his feet, the goatee still blotted crimson along its lengthy point.
"Satisfaction." He spit blood. "I'll have satisfaction." Logan bowed genteelly in complete contrast to his hasty blow. I stepped forward, taking the ceremonial place of a second. Another man, his hand now removed from his coat, mirrored my move as well, walking up to his bleeding friend.
Logan, a smug, if serious smile on his face, left to return to our lodgings as I strolled out of the cafe with the other second.
The minute the other man spoke, the location of their accents came to me. He had the same lilting inflection as our dinner guest, only more pronounced.
"Conditions?" I asked.
"Mister Fuchs will fight your man however you wish. Blood is more important than form." The brute didn't strike me as an orator.
"Certainly. It'll be pistols, traditional form, at sunset tomorrow," I said. His portly neck bobbled in agreement. We set a location and departed from each other's company without another word.
* * * * *
I found my friend lounging about in our lodgings. His arms drooped from unbuttoned sleeves and an uncorked bottle lay nearby.
"Hello!" he cried, his voice too loud.
"You started without me," I accused.
"There's always one of them to spoil the fun." He tossed the bottle towards me, oblivious and forgetting to cork it first. I managed to collect the bottle before the Bordeaux stained the rug too much. Then, taking a long pull, I swallowed the bitter drink without tasting.
"His name's Fuchs. And you'll be fighting him with pistols tomorrow at sunset. Shouldn't be too complicated."
My friend gave a stupid smiled but made no comment. He had never fought a duel. He didn't appear nervous, but I couldn't be certain. Logan was often able to hide his emotions. But not while drunk; I passed the Bordeaux back to him. Like me, he took a long swig from the bottle.
Then he chuckled, darkly. "Remember how 'formulating' this trip was supposed to be?" I shrugged. Logan's father had said as much. Logan continued. "Well, I suppose killing someone for honor and all that is pretty fundamental to a man's skills." He started laughing, his tone high and airy.
I sighed. Duels were not something to be taken lightly. The wine hadn't gotten to me yet, and I was still thinking clearly. Logan wasn't. Although neither of us had ever been involved in one, we were well versed in the history of the ritual. For centuries, men had been killing each other in a tradition to recover honor. Deflowered and adulterous wives had seen their enraged husbands cut down by their lovers. Politicians had shot each other over the smallest detail of ideology. Brothers had crossed steel amid the rosy dawn for control of land, women, wealth, and a multitude of other things. Regardless of its qualities, the duel was not a light venture to undertake. The insulted was just as likely to die as the insulter, adding, well, injury to insult.
I won't pass judgment on Logan, but a blow is completely and utterly unforgiveable among gentlemen. Normally, letters would be exchanged offering polite discourse on location, seconds involved, terms, and formalities of the like. Apologies could even be given and accepted. The duel could then be canceled. In our case however, only immediate satisfaction would suffice. Logan had stuck the man. No apologies or protestations would change that. The next day, one of the two would bleed. If their shots missed, each gun would be reloaded and they'd try again. It wouldn't be pretty.
These thoughts must have weighed on Logan's mind too, despite the drink. He sat up. "You'll go home, won't you? You'll bring my body home and let them know, won't you?"
I could hear tension, not fear, in his voice. "Stop that talk."
"Promise me," he insisted. It all seemed irrational to me. If the lad fell, would I abandon him and instead traipse around Europe on the rest of the Tour?
"Logan, you have my word. The Fletchers always keep that."
"Like the time you promised to make love to Whinny before I did?" The shift in conversation caught me off guard and I guffawed. Whinny had been a rather social girl we each had once courted.
"And I did, didn't I?" I said smugly, proud of myself.
He threw a pillow at me and made to stand. The wine didn't help, so he stumbled a bit. I started to rise.
Logan held up a hand, cutting me off. "A Viscount needs no assistance." The haughty grin on his face broke, and he couldn't keep from laughing. That didn't stop him from ambling out of the room, and I heard him collapse on his bed.
The day ahead promised to be challenging and perhaps deadly. I decided to follow him. I extinguished the lamps and disrobed. Climbing into sumptuous sheets, I again considered the haggard woman we saw along the street, the flies tormenting her. We shared similar heritage, and I was resting upon a massive bed while she likely lay in squalor. How would I change that? How indeed could I make a difference? Those thoughts flew about me, tormenting me like the beggar's flies in the noon-day heat.
The setting sun dropped once more towards the horizon, surrendering her heat. Our carriage clipped up dirt and gravel as its wheels cascaded down the worn path. Sitting through the bouncing ride, I pulled the watch-chain from my waistcoat and sighed. We were late, and it was not proper for a duel. Given our age, we were sure to be looked down upon already by Fuchs, at least two decades older than us.
"Logan," I snapped. "Why those pistols anyway?" His lengthy selection of new dueling pistols had been the cause of our tardiness. Since he already possessed a fine pair of the weapons, and had brought them along for the Tour, I couldn't see why he needed new ones.
"It's my life at stake, not yours."
"I know that, but timing is everything. We're late, and we'll look like fools." I sighed, exasperated. Crossing my arms, I looked past him out the carriage window.
"You just act like a proper second, and we'll be fine."
"Don't condescend to me," I growled.
"Fine, you irritable devil."
We rode the rest of the way in silence. Neither of us were prepared for the changing emotions we'd come to experience since Versailles. This wasn't our first disagreement since the damned affair began.
The carriage gave a wide jerk as it halted, and Logan threw open the door. Leaping out, I followed as well.
We were indeed late, and they were waiting for us. Fuchs, his nose bandaged, the burly second I had met, and a doctor all stood in the windy field. As one, they raised their pocket-watches, and Fuchs rolled his eyes.
"Unavoidable, gentlemen. My apologies," I clipped off as I shook the hands of the second and the doctor. Fuchs and Logan had each retreated to their own empty patch in the tall grass.
The doctor pulled me close. He shared their accents. "Boy, Otto Fuchs never misses. Does your friend have his affairs in order?"
I jerked away from him. "Sir, unless you wish to face me on this field, you will speak to me as an equal. We're prepared. Let's get on with it." The German bowed and set his medical kit on the grass. He walked to a space between the two combatants and withdrew a grimy handkerchief from his pocket.
I had walked over to Logan by then. He turned at the sound, and we clasped arms in solidarity. "Shoot straight; kill the cur."
"Remember you word," he mouthed.
"Good luck then."
I retreated from my friend and took up a cautious position next to our carriage. The other second stood by me, his arms crossed across his chest. The wind flicked his hair about, and had the moment not been so somber, his ridiculous attempts to quell the movement would have been laughable.
The doctor beckoned Fuchs and Logan forward. I couldn't hear the little man's words, but I knew the meaning. He would drop the handkerchief on the count of three and then each man could fire at his own will. The duel would continue until someone was hit, even if multiple shots were needed. I clamped my hands together behind my back to quit their twitching. The anticipation was agonizing. The duelists separated and stopped about twenty paces apart.
Then, the doctor shouted the count. "One." I shut my eyes.
"Two." My breath rushed out of me like a wind.
"Three." I jerked my eyes open as the little cloth dropped. A shot cracked the air, and my eye snapped towards Logan as a cloud of smoke obscured him.
Frantically, I swiveled my gaze to Fuchs. He was standing, unwounded, a cocksure grin on his face. He deliberately, slowly raised his pistol and steadied it. Logan, for his part, threw out his chest, defying the shot about to come.
Whether by divine intervention or simple happenstance, a great gust of wind swept the ground as Fuchs pulled his trigger. Logan whipped his head about and I could see momentary terror on his face. Blood began dripping from his clipped ear.
The seconds approached their counterparts. The doctor was attending my friend as I walked up. Logan was crouching amid the grass, and the doctor stood above him. As the little man dapped at the blood with another cloth, Logan jerked away from his touch. "Another pistol," he shouted into the wind, blood flinging from his ear with the movement.
As he twitched about, I prepared another weapon and passed it to Logan. I leaned close, whispering into his undamaged ear. "Wait this time. Even if he shoots first. Once the cloth drops, you'll be less excitable after a moment if you wait." I rubbed his shoulders and pulled him to his feet. His veins bulged, and he was breathing heavily.
Leaving him to his rage, I again retreated to the carriage.
"One." I kept my gaze steady on Logan, ignoring the countdown and Fuchs completely.
The cloth dropped. A report filled the air. Logan was again hidden amid a cloud. "Damn it!" I hissed. My eyes swept across the field towards Fuchs.
At first, I couldn't find him; the man was gone. I processed it as the doctor sprinted towards his fallen companion. Fuchs' second lumbered forward as well, and I checked my urge to follow. It wouldn't have been proper. Instead, I hurried over to Logan.
"You lucky, lovable fool!"
"Don't get ahead of yourself," he replied sagely.
His smoking weapon lay limp in his hand, and as I took it from him, the veins in his palm shuddered. Leaving him, I returned to the carriage. Rifling through my pack inside, I found what I was looking for and returned to my shaken friend.
I thrust the brandy into his palm and forced him to drink. As the first drops trickled down his throat, he shrank into himself. Then, as his hands wiped away the excess from his lips, he drew up to his full height.
The grass parted behind us, and we wheeled about. The doctor waited, his jaw clenched. "He's dead," the man said simply. Together, Logan and I bowed. As Fuchs' second approached, we returned another bow.
Without another word, we all departed for the separate carriages.
* * * * *
Days later found us lounging amid our quarters once more, several more bottles of the Bordeaux empty upon the floor. Since the duel, lethargy had weighed on us.
I stood and ambled about the room, searching for yet another bottle. It was shocking how despondent our social revelation had turned us. It consumed our thoughts and conversations. Had the noble classes always just ignored that opulence?
My fingers closed upon the glass neck, and I hauled it from the display case in which it had been residing. Uncorking it, I brought the wine to my mouth.
Suddenly the glass window nearby shattered as a rock flew through the pane.
Logan leapt up from his stupor, apathy abandoned. Without a thought, he dived towards his trunk, and rifled through it frantically, finally appearing with a pistol in each hand. He brandished them towards the door.
"It's not loaded, Logan." I chided. A sheepish grin enveloped his face as he dove again towards his trunk. Instead of hurrying for my own weapons, I walked over and picked up the stone. "Besides, I don't think weapons will be needed."
The rock was wrapped with a small slip of paper, a leather strap holding the message in place. My fingers nimbly undid the leather and unraveled the paper. The scroll was in French and barely legible. The language was no problem. We spoke French, Italian, and German well, and I couldn't remember how many times I've conjugated a Latin verb or desired to ram The Oxford Compendium of Passive Verbiage in the Classical Language of the Romans down the throat of Dr. Bidwell, our mousy tutor. Now though, my eyes tracked the words again and again before I tossed the thing towards my friend.
While he read it, I went to the window, but the street below was empty.
"'Get out tonight. Fuchs has friends. Signed, Your friend' . . . And what're we to make of that?" Logan said, staring at me.
"The meaning's rather stark, isn't it?"
"Well yes, but do we leave Paris? Or just these lodgings? Or do we defend ourselves? And who is this friend?" He ticked the questions off one by one on his thin fingers. I shrugged my shoulders.
We hypothesized on it endlessly but came to no conclusion. Our evidence was rather limited all things considered.
"We've been here only a month. Think of all we'll miss," I said finally.
"Like the chance to kill more dandies and witness human suffering at its best?" he muttered.
"You know the second part won't change. At least, not until we go back to England. Maybe we can make a shift there."
"It's easy to dwell upon, isn't it? But that's all beside the point. Do we leave and if so, where to next?"
"I think Rome. Maybe a ball or two will lighten our mood." Logan's father knew several important business contacts in the Roman city, and he had assured us we would be well entertained there. Personally, I was all for traveling to Rome. The wonders of that city had long fascinated me.
Logan bounced the rock in his palm several times."That all leaves this unexplained."
"Just be thankful for now, and maybe we'll discover everything later." There really wasn't any other option.
His brow remained furrowed, but he tossed the rock into a trunk. It was followed by the clothes from about the room. I busied myself with the same task, and we soon had our lodgings back into some semblance of cleanliness. Together, we hauled our trunks down the stairs and deposited them upon the landing. We took to the streets to find a carriage to drive us and our luggage to the train depot.
"What are you looking for?" Logan asked. His voice in the darkness surprised me.
"What do you mean?"
"Ever since we left our rooms, you've been jerking your head about, looking over our shoulders."
I smiled. "I hadn't noticed." Come to think of it, I felt wary. My palms dripped in clamminess, and every sound sent me looking about. "It couldn't be a trap, right?"
"Of course not," he said. "Besides, we took care of them last time, didn't we?"
"If by 'take care of them,' you mean 'barely escaped with your life as a result of a lucky shot,' then perhaps."
"Oh come off it! Luck had nothing to do with—"
Before he could finish, a carriage came bolting around a corner in the street, and we threw ourselves aside to avoid the madman behind the reins. "Fool!" Logan yelled after it as the vehicle raced down the street, kicking up puddles of water from the recent rain.
"Wait a moment," I started. Turning, I made my way back down the street towards our rooms. Logan protested but followed in my wake.
The carriage had pulled to a stop in front of the building we'd just left.
"Any chance of it being a coincidence?" I asked.
Logan chuckled. "Not likely given everything."
Figures jumped out of the waiting coach and crept towards the building. Without knocking, they cracked the door and strode inside. I heard a muffled cry.
"They tripped on our trunks," hissed Logan smiling. Of course. We'd left the massive things at the foot of the stairs. Given the hour, it hadn't been likely that many travelers would come to the building, so we hadn't bothered to shift them.
"Is there anything incredibly important in your trunk?" I asked.
He smiled, grimly. "Nothing that I'd die to keep." Throughout our whispered conversation, we could see a pair of our suspicious intruders pacing outside, keeping watch. Inside, the group would be making its way to our rooms, hoping to catch the two of us asleep.
Not wanting to press our luck, we abandoned our goods and our pride to the villains and dashed away into the night. We each had a bit of money on our person, and given the Harlings' contacts, cash would not be difficult to procure. In spite of all this, I still felt a bit ridiculous leaving our trunks behind.
Ducking through various alleyways and backstreets, we paused to take stock of our position. Droplets of rain pattered down around us, and Logan looked miserable. Noting my questioning glance, he spoke. "If I hadn't acted so damned foolish at that cafe, we wouldn't be stuck in this."
"What's a Grand Tour without a bit of adventure?" I shot back.
"If you call shooting a threatening oaf, abandoning all of your current possessions, and fleeing from murderers in the night 'adventure,' then I suppose this is rather grand."
It was too much, and a laugh escaped unwillingly from my lips. "You do have a point," I conceded.
Our feet had carried us along for some time. I was starting to question our paranoia. Of course, the cloaked men had been seeking us at our lodgings. The chain of events was too connected for coincidence. But how far would these ruffians go to exact their revenge? Would we need to travel from city to city, watching over our shoulders? To be honest, I doubted it. Regardless of his aristocratic manner and shady friends, the death of this Fuchs character wasn't likely to cause an international chase. The idea seemed ludicrous.
When I mentioned it, Logan mirrored my thoughts but raised a valid point. "They have two options really. First, they could wait for us at our rooms, hoping we'll return. Or second, they might try to find us at the train station. If they choose the latter, which I think is more likely, what do we do?"
"There won't be a train to Rome at this time of night. They'll have the entire night to set up any ambush they want."
"Their main problem is spectators though. I doubt any group would be brash enough to commit such a crime in this climate."
I nodded. We both recalled the riot from Le Moniteur. The Parisian police were becoming more intrusive in order to prevent similar incidents. During our stay in the city, we had seen quite a few patrols to that effect. "It wouldn't hurt to be ready for an attack though."
"How's this," he said. "We board the train at the last possible moment, making a dash towards it. We'll be conspicuous as we run, but they'll have no chance to even see us, let alone snatch us."
"If they're even there."
"If they're even there," he repeated. "Any suggestions?"
I had none, and as the rain continued to pour over us, we walked the streets of Paris, avoiding all contact with others, and staying alert to prevent an ambush. We came to the station at last. Unsurprisingly, it was nearly abandoned. However, a few snoring beggars littered the platform.
I pointed towards a public placard listing certain train times, and our luck held. A train was indeed traveling to Rome the following day. Noting the time of its departure, a fortuitous half-past seven in the morning, we moved away from the station. We nestled down under a lonely birch tree nearby. It provided a wide view of the area, as well as being withdrawn and out of notice from the street. Even so, we kept watch, alternating sleep for the rest of the night.
As the minutes dragged by, I kept wondering what might have happened had our mysterious 'friend' not intervened on our behalf. The prospects weren't pleasant. However, they did manage to keep my mind occupied through the long watch just before dawn. The sun's welcome rays warmed our hideaway and scattered the worries from the long night. Although jarred, we would be fine, and as the miles fell behind us on our route towards Europe's Holy City, the entire ordeal would be forgotten.
I roused my friend as our train moved into position, its engine bellowing steam and smoke like some foul creature. A small group walked towards the waiting locomotive, and the city woke around us.
Passengers began boarding the train. Logan scanned the group, hoping for a glimpse of someone nefarious, but our assailants, whoever they might be, never presented themselves. The whistle blew, but we didn't move. The last few passengers ducked aboard, and still, we remained. At last the locomotive started rolling, gaining momentum as it lumbered out of the station. I stood, Logan beside me. Sucking in one last breath, we dashed, all the world like champion athletes. Throwing ourselves up the platform, we hurtled towards our departing train.
Suddenly, men were shouting.
Logan glanced behind him and redoubled his pace, outrunning me towards our escape. Heaving in another breath, I renewed my own efforts as we ran, parallel to the lumbering vehicle. Behind me, I heard the footfalls of several more runners, but I gave them no thought. As the last car moved away from the platform, we threw ourselves across the gap and onto the train.
Whirling about, I saw three men shaking their fists, almost comically, as we made our getaway. They all wore the strange bowlers with the cross-emblazoned medallions. Among them was Fuchs' second from the duel as well as a willowy man, scowling with a heavily scarred face that I would not soon forget.
Clapping my friend on the back, we shouted an exclamation into the wind as the train picked up speed, propelling us towards Rome.